By Wayne Anthony Ross, B.S, J.D
Wayne Anthony Ross began his legal career as an Assistant Attorney General and later served as Court Trustee and Standing Master.
Wayne now operates his own law firm in Anchorage. He is a licensed assistant guide, gun collector, and lodge owner. He has taught legal courses for the University of Anchorage/Anchorage and was a columnist for the Alaska Bar Rag, Anchorage Daily News, and Alaska Chronical
Wayne Anthony Ross arrived in Alaska in the late 1960s with a law degree, a new wife, and not job. Courtrooms, Cartridges, and Campfires is about the colorful characters he met, and the adventures he has in his first decade in the Last Frontier. These include curmudgeon judges, colorful attorneys, cantankerous brown bears, gamblers, crooks, memorable guides, moose and mouse hunts, sheep and caribou hunts, fishing contests, and courtroom dramas and antics. His stories go a long way toward answering the questions “What is a nice boy from Wisconsin doing in a place like Alaska?”
The Balloon Man
The Balloon Man and his wife lived across the alley and up the block from our house. The Balloon Man and his wife, whose real names were Mr. and Mrs. Jerabek, had a son about my age named Ricky. The Balloon Man and his wife always called him Richard, we never knew why.
The Ballon Man and his wife lived in a two-story brick house covered with ivy. There was so much ivy that no one knew The Balloon Man lived in a brick house. Then one year some men came and trimmed the ivy back and we kids were able to see the brick on Ricky’s house for the first time.
The Balloon Man’s house was always cool inside. I guess the ivy helped keep it that way. On hot summer days, we kids always enjoyed being invited into the cool of The Balloon Man’s house.
The Balloon Man and his wife liked kids. We’d spend many long summer afternoons at their house, playing Monopoly or Pollyanna or other board games, and we always knew eventually The Balloon Man’s wife would bring us a big pitcher of Kool-Aid and some cookies of popcorn. She’d serve the Kool-Aid in aluminum glasses filled with ice cubes. The aluminum glasses would sweat and we’d draw funny faces in the moisture in the outside of the glass.
Behind their house near the alley, The Balloon Man and his wife had a huge elm tree with branches shading the entire backyard. We’d play marbles in the dirt beneath that tree, or we’d dig in the sandbox The Balloon Man had built for us.
The Balloon Man and his wife always had a lot of flowers in their yard. I remember the tiger lilies best, and their flower garden was edged with flat limestone rocks. At least once each summer, The Balloon Man gathered us kids around and he’d lift up one or two of those rocks. He then pointed out the fossilized remains of trilobites that were plainly visible and tell us about dinosaurs and other animals that lived long before we kids did.
One summer day The Balloon Man took us on a hike. The farms and fields around our neighborhood were just starting to become settled then and someone had punched a new road through a large woods some distance from our house. We explored that road, and The Balloon Man told us about different and bushes we saw that day. We ate crab apples and somehow the Balloon Man was able to make a whistle out of a branch of a weeping willow tree.
The Balloon Man got his name because he was the only guy we knew who could “repair” balloons.
Balloons were a rare commodity in those days. A kid who had a balloon was the envy of the neighborhood.
But if we had a balloon, invariably it would break. Off we would go to The Balloon Man’s house with the pieces of colored rubber. “Can you fix this?” we’d ask him. “I think so” he’d say, “but I have to get my magic wand.” The Balloon Man would then disappear into his house. Sometimes he’d be gone quite a while. Then he’d come back with a funny hat on, and a straw, which he waved over the balloon. He’d put the pieces of our old balloon behind his back, and after a few Abracadabras, we’d be given our balloon back, all repaired. Sometimes The Balloon Man even changed the color!
I was almost a teenager before I realized the Balloon Man probably had been doing a switcheroo on us, telling us he was repairing our balloons when he was actually giving us new ones. Still, that hat and magic wand looked pretty authentic, and I guess if anyone could repair a balloon, The Balloon Man could.
Many decades later, I went back to the neighborhood for my father’s funeral. I walked the alley behind The Balloon Man’s house. The huge elm tree and the sandbox were gone. A garage had taken their place. But at Dad’s funeral, an old man and woman came to pay their last respects. Despite the passage of forty years, I recognized The Balloon Man and his wife. They were now in their eighties, and though The Balloon Man didn’t hear so well anymore, they still were sharp as tacks. I reminded them of their many kindnesses. The Balloon Man and his wife seemed surprised but pleased that I would remember.
The Balloon Man and his wife, through the little things they did, gave me wonderful memories that have lasted more than half a century and I remain grateful to this very day.
My Ugly Older Sister
There is a famous story called The Ugly Duckling. My sister Kay spent her teenage years as an ugly duckling. She wasn’t ugly really-just plain as a post. Kay and my dad used to tell the story about her high school prom.
When no one invited Kay to go to the prom, my dad secretly hired a guy to take her. Dad paid the guy fifty bucks, so the story went, and Dad even bought the flowers. The guy took my sister to the prom. Fifty bucks, in those days, was a lot of money. Later my sister found out Dad paid a guy to ask her to the prom and she was devastated.
Being the little brother, I thought my sister was beautiful. She was also very good to me. Kay, realizing that her little brother was a total nerd, did everything she could to make me cool. She’d buy me neat sweaters, and other trendy clothes. She’d give me encouragement and advice at every opportunity. She was everything a big sister should be and more.
I, of course, worshipped her.
In 1956, a local TV station held a beauty contest. The winner, to be named “Miss Channel 19,” would win a red 1956 Buick Special convertible, a $1000 wardrobe, and a trip for two to Mexico. The first few runners-up would win a TV set. I wanted my sister the enter that contest, I told her that if she didn’t enter on her own, I’d pick out a picture of her and enter the contest for her. I figured we would at least win a TV!
Of course, the only pictures we had of Kay showed the ugly-duckling aspects.
After I bugged her to enter the contest for several weeks, she went out, had her hair styled, and had a glamorous picture taken of herself which she submitted to the TV station. Lo and behold, Kay won the contest.
Even though I didn’t get the go to Mexico, and got no part of the $1,000 wardrobe, when I got old enough to drive, she’d let me take that Buick to school once in a while, or to take out a special date It as a gorgeous car and really fun to drive.
A year or two later, having developed confidence in herself, my sister entered the Miss America contest. She was first named Miss West Allis, having won the local contest in our hometown, and then went on to win the Miss Wisconsin contest. Eventually, my sister went to Atlantic City and was on TV in the Miss America Pageant with Anita Bryant in 1958. Kay and Anita were friends for a number of years.
My sister, like me, is now a senior citizen, and yet she is still gorgeous and often has guys in their thirties and forties ask her out. In fact, when anyone sees us together and learns that this lovely lady is my sister, invariably they ask me, “What happened to you?” I just tell them I was adopted.